(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series featuring an interview with famed composer Joseph LoDuca, known for his connection to The Evil Dead and Chucky/Child’s Play franchises, along with noteworthy films such as Brotherhood of the Wolf and popular series such as Xena: Warrior Princess.)
In this current era of remakes, reboots, requels, and reimaginings, it’s a truly celebratory occasion when one manages to properly stick the landing. Surprising fans and critics alike, one of the more recent lauded cinematic reinvigorations came via horror’s favorite possessed doll, Chucky. While carefully balancing audience expectations with fresh material is never an easy order, it was an especially intimidating task for a franchise as long-running and beloved as Child’s Play. However, with original franchise mastermind, Don Mancini, at the helm, Chucky’s new eponymous television adventure as a Syfy original series was in good hands right out of the box.
With a mix of fresh faces like Zackary Arthur, Björgvin Arnarson, and Alyvia Alyn Lind, and a healthy batch of the familiar including Jennifer Tilly, Devon Sawa, and Fiona Dourif thrown in for good measure, all the ingredients were there for a successful new outing with Chucky. To further help breathe a spirited new life into this latest installment of the franchise, Mancini called upon frequent composer collaborator (and horror icon), Joseph LoDuca. As well as providing the aural atmosphere for projects like Brotherhood of the Wolf, Xena: Warrior Princess and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, LoDuca also composed the scores for Mancini’s Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017). Intimately acquainted with the franchise’s signature blend of horror, humor, and heart, LoDuca was the perfect, well-prepared choice to usher Chucky into the modern television landscape.
Mirroring the franchise’s continually progressive approach to modernization and evolving societal values, LoDuca gave the music of Chucky a fresh new sound as well. Intentionally leaving the tired old jump-scare cues tucked away in the closet where they belong, LoDuca seized the opportunity to play with audience expectations and redefine what modern horror sounds like within the Child’s Play universe. Using a plethora of original, unsettling sounds, LoDuca’s music patiently simmers beneath the surface, churning with suspense and dread. Not only does this approach allow the scares to land their own punches, but the consistent presence of humming apprehension also keeps the tension consistently taut. However, this focus on reserved, foreboding terror does not mean that LoDuca forgot about the humor so intrinsically ingrained into the franchise.
Seamlessly juxtaposing acoustic orchestral elements with those from the synthetic, electronic realm, LoDuca creates a score that feels as equally nostalgic as it does fresh. This hybrid approach allows LoDuca’s score to easily exist alongside modern insert songs from artists like Billie Eilish, Black Devil Disco Club, Body of Light, Boy Harsher, and Electric Youth. Similarly, by strategically utilizing modern technology to distort and twist sounds, LoDuca is also able to create an eerie sense of unease from the most innocuous of places. Taking items like a simple toy piano and dusting it with digital magic, LoDuca transforms its purpose and impact. Injecting a healthy dose of cheekiness and conscious humor into the music, clever instrumentation and melodic choices such as this keep the devilishly mischievous spirit of Chucky alive and well.
With the recent reveal of Chucky Season 2 being green-lit, the moment was perfect to virtually sit down with LoDuca for a chat. Incredibly generous with his time, LoDuca not only spoke at length about working with everyone’s favorite Good Guy doll, he also indulged a few questions about his illustrious, sprawling career and, of course, Evil Dead. It’s a casual conversation that provides an honest glimpse at one of horror’s most treasured composers and as such, it’s one that simply could not be limited to one concise article.
For that reason, this interview will be broken into two segments. In the first, LoDuca provides a wonderfully revealing look into his long-time relationship with the iconic Chucky franchise, working with Mancini, and his unique approach to specific moments in the hit show. In the second — which will be published soon — we’ll touch on some notable career highlights, his composing process, and how it both has and hasn’t changed throughout the years. It’s a long one yes, but buckle in because I promise you it’s worth the ride.
Vehlinggo: The Child’s Play franchise is a really interesting one. Along with having incredible continuity, it has so many different, amazing composers. There’s Joe Renzetti, Graeme Revell, Pino Dinoggio, and of course, yourself! How did you first get involved with the franchise? And, when you first sat down to work on Curse of Chucky, did you feel any obligation to draw from those previous scores?
Joseph LoDuca: It was the first question I asked upon coming on board. My agent, Richard Craft, introduced Don Mancini and me, and he’s really good about making these types of musical marriages. Don and I hit it off right away and he basically gave me free rein. He said that there wasn’t anything in particular that I had to be aware of or cognizant of. It was really just to approach the film that he had just made. He directed Curse of Chucky and we had a really good starting off point in that he didn’t believe that there had been a consistent theme. And I said, “Well, how can that be? You gotta have a theme for Chucky!”
And there was an actual main title for the movie. It was a movie that actually had a three-minute main title. So, I immediately thought of a toy piano that would be a little broken and detuned. I thought of it as being kind of a jingle — like a Saturday morning Mattel jingle that had a little twist to it in that it was minor. And actually, I have that piano here that I wrote it on! It doesn’t have all the notes so I sampled it. [Plays a snippet of the “Chucky Theme” on the toy piano] It was a way to get into it. You know, Chucky is your friend ‘til the end.
While Chucky has certainly been through a lot over the years, the TV format was still a new adventure for him. There are also a lot of new characters introduced in the show. This all makes me curious: What were those early conversations and ideas like about the musical direction for the series?
Those questions always come from me. You know, I think that the Curse movie had its own little universe. It was a film, it was a complete story. Cult took place in an asylum in the frozen north, so it had its own little setting and environment. What I noticed about this script is that Don was true to the cult fans of the franchise. He gave us some hints into the backstory of how Charles Lee Ray became Chucky. He also had this whole young audience that he was bringing in — it’s a YA series, crazily enough. So, Chucky being the metaphor for chaos, what happens if we throw him in with a bunch of middle-schoolers with middle-school problems and family [drama]? What happens there?
It was all of those things combined into one, and I think he did a great job of putting it all together. So, I knew that the music — even before I knew about all of the licensing of all the songs that would be in the show — was going to have to be sort of an updated approach to horror. You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, especially in the genre. And, you got to come up with new ways to scare folks. Audiences are more sophisticated now. So it was mainly about finding all these sounds and how to tie the songs together with the score. The family drama is a whole other element that you have to weave in and out of, too. So for me, it was about the sounds. I knew that we were going to have to update it. And so that was my journey there.
“… What happens if we throw [Chucky] in with a bunch of middle-schoolers with middle-school problems and family [drama]?”
That experimentation and exploration of sound seems like a very important but also very fun part of your job.
Oh yeah! I spent so much time on that, as much in the sound design of the music as the actual music itself. Your readers can’t see, but there’s a lot of instruments that surround me here in the studio. And, it may start out as something more organic, but by the time I get through with it, you don’t know how it originated and how it got there. The tools that composers have nowadays with software and a computer are amazing. What you can do to kind of mangle and strangle and do all kinds of things — manipulations with just a few keystrokes — is pretty amazing. That was the most fun.
You mentioned the insert songs used in the show and I’d love to talk about those. Not only are there a lot of them, but they really help contribute to the youthful energy that runs throughout the series. How did their presence and positioning affect your job?
It varies. There are key songs that you know are going to be there. There’s a Billie Eilish performance in the last episode we knew was going to be there, even though there was a scramble to get the rights. So I knew I’d be writing in and out and around that. I have to make those transitions and make them seamless. And I guess, even though we only used a bit of a vocal performance, I still had to make it sound like Finneas is playing piano behind her.
There is also The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Again, I’m throwing some horror guitar on top of the surf guitar. There is a house burning down in the middle of a silent disco in [episode 3] and it’s a house track, right? So, you have a beat and you have a bass line, but not much else going on. Well, over the top of that, I can write things that might be possible within the genre but are totally playing into what you’re seeing on screen and how the kids are unaware that the house is burning down around them. So there’s a lot of that.
There were also times where we didn’t know until the last minute what the song would be. It’s the most of that type of thing that I’ve ever had to do—having that many songs that need that much licensing in a series. But, it works well. And again, it plays into the idea that this is a YA series…but also, not. [Laughs]
There are some really brutal kills, I have to admit.
There are! And often, I actually saw this happen on Ash vs. Evil Dead too, the way to take the onus off the horror is to put a pop tune over the most gruesome killings.
Something else unique to this new series is the fact that Chucky finally gets a real, recurring theme and title sequence. And, if I’m not mistaken, that theme is a callback to a previous Child’s Play film?
Yeah, Child’s Play 2! That was the folks at Universal who decided that. They decided that the biggest hook and commercial success of the Chucky franchise (up to this point) was Child’s Play 2. So it was decided that that theme [by Graeme Revell], which really works, should be the 18-second main title that we have. So I rearranged that for that particular sequence. And, it gets used a bit in the series particularly because, unlike the theme I just played you, it’s a little more playful, a little more carnival, and a little more deceptive. And it works really well for the relationship that Chucky develops with Lexy’s younger sister, who is autistic and sees Chucky as her best friend. So it works really well for that and it plays whenever those two are on screen together.
While we’re on this path of working with familiar material, one of my favorite episodes was the “Cape Queer” episode. Along with some literal mentions and narrative nods to the Cape Fear films, there are some pulls from Bernard Herrmann’s and Elmer Bernstein’s Cape Fear scores as well. Tell us a little bit about working on that particularly unique episode.
That was totally Don’s idea. I mean, besides being a great filmmaker, Don is one of the world’s biggest cinephiles. So he is also referencing shots and angles. There’s Paul Schrader in there, Scorsese, Christopher Nolan — there’s all of these references for those that are paying attention to those types of things. And the music is no exception. It’s great to work with a filmmaker who loves music and has those kinds of references, so the choice to put the Bernard Herrmann there was totally his.
That stuff was kind of roughed in there, and then I worked with our music editor, Scott Francisco, to make sure that we could make those sequences work with the music that’s available from those scores. Then, we had to work them in and out of the scenes so that when we cut away from them the music definitely said, “Oh, OK. Now we’re back into our ordinary Chucky world.” But we tried to do it in a way that you didn’t feel a glitch or a bump in that way. And it’s great that we had those Elmer Bernstein re-visionings, because those recordings are excellent.
LoDuca leaves the tired old jump-scare cues tucked away in the closet where they belong.
I’d love to talk about your use of piano throughout the series and the way it is used in some of the quieter, more emotional moments. While the scares are great and wonderfully executed, it is these tender musical moments that really reinforce the narrative heart of the series. Why did you choose that particular instrument to carry that message?
You’ve really been listening! I mean, the Elmer Bernstein version of the Herrmann score?!
[Laughs] I really like film scores.
So, with the specific use of the piano, there is very little piano that is used with just the straight sound. Almost all the keyboard sounds are processed heavily, and there’s a reason for that. The only straight use of a piano in a heartfelt way occurs in the relationship between Jake and Devon and when we’re developing that relationship. Because, in the first episode, Devon is playing the piano at the talent show, right?
Initially, he was going to play “Pachelbel’s Canon,” but that was left on the cutting room floor. Instead, we knew that there was a particular song in Episode 5 when they have their first kiss: the Lauv tune, “Modern Loneliness.” It’s a very simple, heartfelt song sung by Lauv while he’s playing the piano. And so, my use of the piano was to play in a style very simply that would kind of be in the same style of what Lauv plays to accompany him. It was very intentional that the melody be very simple and just connect these two young men together with a little love theme. Thanks for noticing!
Oh, of course! I really thought it was such a beautiful and effective way to connect and support this young, budding romance.
It’s funny that you mentioned it because, in general, I like to avoid piano if I can in those types of moments because it’s the easy out. You know, “Let’s use piano and we’ll put it up here in the upper register. They’ll fall for that again, right?” [Laughs]
Stay tuned for the second part of my interview with LoDuca, as we shift the discussion toward his early years as a composer, his interesting relationship with horror, and his experience working on projects like Evil Dead and Brotherhood of the Wolf.